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A needed lesson in bipartisanship: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

At this moment, everybody can learn a lot from Mansfield and Dirksen, Kennedy and McCulloch

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, as Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, as Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on. (LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton/White House Photo Office)

As a little boy spending summers with my very political grandmother in Troy, Ohio, I remember seeing her friend, Rep. Bill McCulloch, at the house and, of course, mingling with voters at the county fair.  

What I didn’t realize until many decades later was that the man who once gave me a photo of him with the first three Mercury astronauts in space played such a crucial role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a Politico Magazine excerpt from Todd Purdum’s book “An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964” that got my attention, with its headline: “The Republican who saved civil rights: How a little-known conservative Ohio congressman changed American history.” 

OK, I was hooked.

I learned that it was Bill McCulloch to whom President John Kennedy back-channeled to help break the logjam that had stalled major civil rights action in Congress since 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower and his attorney general, Herb Brownell, proposed legislation that would become the first civil rights law since Reconstruction. 

That law, among other things, created the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and gave federal prosecutors the authority to bring court action against “interference with the right to vote.” Eisenhower’s legislation was a step forward, but like so many civil rights efforts, it was weakened by a block of Southern Democratic senators who later also played a role in watering down the 1960 Civil Rights Act, which made incremental progress toward protecting the rights of minorities. 

By the time Kennedy reached out to McCulloch in the summer of 1963, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee had introduced his own civil rights bill, as had 90 other House Republicans, but the Democratic majority had failed to consider any of them. Kennedy was frustrated with the slow pace of civil rights legislation, stalled once again by the Southern Democratic bloc in the Senate and like-minded House members. “To get a bill,” the president said, “we got to have bipartisanship. Without him, it can’t be done.” He meant McCulloch. Kennedy couldn’t win with Democratic votes alone.

The Kennedy-McCulloch partnership, later joined by Republicans Charles Halleck, the House minority leader, and John Lindsay, then a New York City congressman, embarked on a difficult “dance,” working back and forth to craft legislation that pro-civil rights liberals and pro-civil rights conservatives would accept. In the end, 80 percent of Republicans (138-34) and 61 percent of Democrats (152-96) voted for passage the following year, after Kennedy’s assassination. 

Had McCulloch not crossed the aisle to work with a Democratic president and had that president not acknowledged the value of the minority party’s role in governing, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would never have passed the House.

But the fight wasn’t over. The legislation moved to the Senate, with Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield in charge. Mansfield, like Kennedy, knew that the Southern Caucus, the bloc of anti-civil rights Democrats, intended to stop consideration of the hard-won House bill. First, Mansfield had to keep the bill out of the Judiciary Committee, which had become a “graveyard” for civil rights legislation under its Democratic chairman, James Eastland of Mississippi.

Mansfield appointed two senators to lead the effort to pass the bill, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Thomas Kuchel. They all understood, given Southern Democrats’ intransigence, they would need Republican votes for passage. That meant bringing Minority Leader Everett Dirksen into the process. 

Dirksen was a longtime advocate for stronger civil rights protections, but handing President Lyndon Johnson a major political victory in the election year of 1964 was a big ask. But he did the right thing and went to work with a bipartisan team of senators to craft a substitute bill that could attract enough support from both parties to defeat the inevitable filibuster. It was a big hill to climb.

The Senate Historical Office describes this history-changing decision this way: “Dirksen, a proud Republican from the Land of Lincoln, was determined to preserve the Republican legacy inherited from the Great Emancipator.”

After weeks of often-heated negotiations and horse-trading, Mansfield and Dirksen finally introduced their substitute legislation and braced for a cloture battle on the Senate floor. They would need 67 votes to break the filibuster. Dirksen would need to provide at least 25 votes from his 33-member conference because Mansfield and Humphrey calculated the most Democratic votes they could count on was 42.  

In March, Southern Democrats had begun what would be the longest filibuster in the history of the Senate, 60 working days. 

On June 10, Dirksen delivered his famous speech on the Senate floor, calling for enactment by paraphrasing Victor Hugo, “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. … It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.” It was time to vote.

Together, Mansfield and Dirksen won what was a nail-biting vote for cloture and an end to the filibuster, 71-29 — a first for civil rights legislation. The moment came when Republican John Williams of Delaware cast the 67th vote to put them over the top. Sixty-six percent of Democrats (44-23) and 82 percent of Republicans (27-6) voted to end the filibuster. Both parties voted along similar lines for the bill’s final passage, 73-27, with 82 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats voting “yes.” The House followed suit, passing the Senate version 289-126, with 80 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats. 

Beyond the rightness of the legislation, it was bipartisan unity that delivered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. No rules were changed to get it done. This transformational legislation wasn’t jammed through on a partisan vote. Quite the contrary.

It wasn’t a perfect bill, and not everyone was happy, but that is the art of the compromise. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became the law of the land through what was seen as a fair, bipartisan process. The vast majority of Americans accepted and celebrated the bill as a milestone in the effort to make this a better, more equal country.

Now, this Congress is facing what Mansfield told his colleagues before the cloture vote: “The Senate now stands at the crossroads of history.” With highly partisan legislation from the For the People Act to trillion-dollar infrastructure plans, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have made no attempts at the kind of give-and-take with Republicans that produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Joe Biden has added plenty of over-the-top hyperbole but not much of his long promised bipartisanship and unity. 

At this moment, everybody could learn a lot from Mansfield and Dirksen, Kennedy and McCulloch, who worked together to achieve a long-lasting, historic outcome for all Americans.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.

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